Is All Love Unconditional?
And Alfie Kohn's Punished By Rewards
Have you ever felt unconditionally loved? I guess I should start by defining what I mean when I say, Unconditional Love. I grew up with the understanding that this term meant that no matter what I did, or who I was, I was loved by my parents. Both of them made my sister and me aware of this fact by telling us and by showing up for us. They still got mad at our actions and praised us when we met their expectations. However, the underlying understanding was that we were loved for who we were and not what we did. This form of love, parental, I feel like is the best illustration of the type of love I am talking about.
Unconditional love, perhaps, also has the connotation of love that does not change. It just exists. But by nature, most if not all things change in life, and so does love. This is where things get a bit tricky. Can you have unconditional love for someone and not want to be with them?
There are so many reasons why I think parental love is by nature unconditional. All of M’s actions are not the reason why I love her. My love for her is primal. Primal in the sense that I would do anything for her, including deal with my own shit so I can take care of her. Primal in the sense that when she is in trouble I can only take care of her. It is instinctual (though my instincts are often incorrect). It is her perception that matters. Her need to feel unconditionally cared for.
When you think back to the people in your life that you have said, “I Love You”, do you still love them in some capacity? Even if you are no longer on speaking terms? For me, the answer is yes. Do I want to be with them again? Probably no. Do I regret being with them? Sometimes. But do I still care for them? Kinda, yes. And that makes me wonder, what is the threshold that love has to cross to be considered unconditional?
This past weekend, I traveled to Portland to install a show called Wallowing with my dear friend Kate Pruitt. On Friday night, we got to talking about the people we had loved, and I tried to pull up some photos of past loves on Facebook to prove the point that I had a “type.” That no matter how hard I tried, I always dated people who looked similar. Do you have a type? Perhaps it is not an appearance, maybe an emotional trait? I got to thinking, I still love all of these people. Upon reflection, they were all brilliant people, doing things that I found interesting. My love for them was not on the condition that we are together. Or even that we want to be together. Have you ever told someone, “just because I love you, doesn’t mean that I want to be with you…”?
Thus, the idea of unconditional love compared to being “in” or “out” of love with someone is interesting. Being in love with someone has an implied passion and presence to it. This suggests romantic love, but I don’t think it should be limited to that segment. There is dispassion to being not actively in love with someone. Both could conceivably fall under the umbrella of unconditional love. Love can still exist and be without being the prefix of in or out.
And our general idea of “love” in this case is now equivocal to “care.” This whole idea might just be conflating these two terms: love and care.
Maybe you had a firm grasp on the difference between the two terms? I think I still mean Love. Care is something I would offer to all living beings - even ones I have never met. A helpful question for you might be, are you able to love someone and not want to be with them? That love, or feeling, is arguably unconditional.
This week, I am talking to Alfie Kohn. I found out about Alfie’s work through a Q&A with Laurie Santos (who is my idol) in the NYTimes titled “Yale’s Happiness Professor Says Anxiety Is Destroying Her Students”(click here to read). Laurie assigns Alfie’s book, Punished By Rewards, to all of her students. That got me curious. He also wrote Unconditional Parenting (again very interesting).
In Punished by Rewards, Alfie starts with his strong critique of Skinner’s Behaviorism. If you forgot, Skinner was the dude with the Pigeon in the box. He was interested in how the things we learn and our environment modify our behavior. The idea is that you can manipulate people by saying things like, “Do this, and you will get that.” Translated: I will give you this to make you change your behavior or the association with rewards or punishment to actions.
This way of understanding or ideology has been really hard for me to see past. Our north-western educational system is based on it. Grades trained me to understand my worth in a system based on arbitrary benchmarks of industrialism and societal control. How would you understand yourself and your motivations without the idea that actions are judged by consequences? My complete understanding of my personal worth is based on external validation. I have been training myself for many years to try to be internally motivated, but it’s hard re-programming. I would have argued before reading this book that praise was less punitive than punishment. However, the argument that one is “driven by praise” in the same ways that punishment drives our actions, seems reasonable. The comparison of the two seems embedded with manipulation and judgment. Two sides of the same coin.
However, in regards to behavioralism, he wants us to consider more than what our short terms goals might be in our relationships with others and humanity as a whole. He challenges us to think about the greater context and how we view humans; not as pawns but as people. The greater goal is not temporary compliance, but inspiring genuine interest. This, he would argue, is not done with external tactics, but internal. As parents, as teachers, our objective is to set up environmental conditions that foster a genuine interest in whatever they take a liking to. There is no road map: all people are different.
His ideas are pretty radical but convincing. Idealistic but attainable. If you want to read more, visit:
One last thing that really stuck with me, he talked about how babies are inherently curious. And that through molding and manipulation, we become interested in pleasing others. Thoughts?